As far as the art of conversing with people who disagree with you goes, I, like most people I know, am a well-intended rookie. But Daryl Davis, a rock-and-roll pianist who has played with the likes of Buddy Holly, turns out to be a grandmaster at more than just pounding on the ivories.

 

Production for Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America finished before the election of Donald Trump -- and before the rise of neo-nazism became a staple in public discourse. But Davis, a 59-year-old black man from Chicago, is the O.G. of the “engage to change hearts” mantra. Since 1990, he's met one-on-one with members of the KKK, all in pursuit of that eternal question: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? And since Davis makes these klansmen feel respected and listened to -- Davis is unusually patient and affable -- many of his unlikely friends have undergone a change of heart. In fact, Davis has a collection of some 25 Klan hoods (trophies from his converts) that he hopes to put in a museum one day. Whoa.

 

Director Matt Ornstein’s documentary is especially relevant in the wake of Charlottesville, which was instigated by a white-supremacist rally designed to protest the removal of Confederate statues. Davis brings an interesting perspective to the debate, as on one hand he agrees with the protesters' sentiment that we can't just destroy history, no matter how disagreeable it might be (after all, the dude is literally creating a museum of KKK memorabilia). But in another scene, when a statue in Memphis is spray-painted with the popular rallying cry “Black Lives Matter,” Davis argues that such statues don't need to be destroyed, but maybe they’d be better gathered in one central spot, not spread throughout town. Then people can visit these artifacts like they would visit the site of an internment camp.

 

I heard the same argument myself post-Charlottesville and considering sharing as much on a Southern friend’s Facebook post as she made the aforementioned “history is important” argument. But I hesitated. Instead, in an attempt to let her express her opinion, I brought up how statues are really less about the people featured themselves, and more about the ideas they represented. I asked what some of these ideas she admired were. She didn't respond, and I abandoned the attempt. Maybe she thought I was trying to trap her. It's hard, y'all. And even if Daryl Davis receiving a certificate of friendship from the Traditionalist American Knights makes you feel uncomfortable, one had to admire his ability to even get a dialogue started.

 

Ornstein found a fascinating character in Davis, which is always essential for a documentary, but if there is any criticism to be had, it’s that he quite obviously lets Davis carry the film. The structure itself is a bit sophomoric -- we alternate between interviews with Davis in his study, interviews with Klansmen at diners, and impromptu history lessons given in Davis's deep baritone in front of important African-American landmarks. The latter is probably intended to balance questions of Davis's love for his own culture, but motivations aside, as a Howard University grad, Davis is more than qualified to give us a tour of Black History 101.

 

One can't help but notice, however, how intentionally the film is structures to make viewers believe Davis is one helluva guy. The only time his cool demeanor slips, ironically, is when he's talking to two young BLM activists in Baltimore, but even then, we get a cool-and-collected follow up from Davis at home.

 

The film lacks the sort of narrative arc that's the hallmark of great modern documentaries. We never see Davis, for instance, take part in a weekend retreat with the KKK, as the word “infiltrate” in the film's promotional material would seem to suggest.


Still, I'll personally take a film that poses difficult albeit unanswerable question over easy assaults on topics we all already agree on any day. Accidental Courtesy is a provocative film in content, if not terrible riveting in technical delivery.